|Photo courtesy of Amtrak|
I’ve loved trains since my fifth birthday. My present then, far better than the spoiled, bratty only child that I was deserved, was a fully operating model train set in my basement. It was replete with mountains, bridges, tunnels and the fantastic Lionel passenger and freight cars that were mirror images of their full size parents. It was incredible. And each train ride since then has been a joy.
A little over two weeks ago, again on my birthday, my wife surprised me with a train trip to Chicago. While a trip to Tahiti might have been preferable, we couldn’t have gotten there that day anyway, since flights were delayed because of the heavy snow. Not so the train, however.
It was a wonderfully relaxing ride as we cut through the snow on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service, watching automobiles crawling along the freeway to arrive hours after we did. I thought to myself, as I had the other times I’d taken the train to Chicago, that this sure beats the hell out of sitting in traffic on 94.
The train was clean and comfortable and right on time. It was crowded too, which was good to see and indicated to me the route might be doing well. It is. In fact, the Hiawatha Service has become wildly successful.
In 2011, ridership on the Hiawatha Service rose four percent to well over 800,000 customers, reaching that milestone for the first time in its 23-year history. The Hiawatha, which provides seven round trips daily to Chicago, is the busiest Amtrak corridor in the Midwest and sixth busiest in the country.
Operated jointly by the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation, the route is only barely profitable. Upgrades are needed, to cars, tracks and stations, to keep up with the increased demand. The Federal Government was going to provide $150 million to cover the upgrades, but the Obama administration shortsightedly cut most of the funding to spank us for Scott Walker’s decision to decline the $810 million earmarked for high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison. The latter would have paved the way for a high-speed rail line all the way to Minneapolis, making what now is a grueling car ride a relaxing, and quicker, train trip.
Speaking of Minneapolis, it built its own Hiawatha line, a light rail system from downtown Minneapolis to the MSP airport. Seems like a great idea. In fact, when I moved to Wisconsin 20 years ago, there was an idea floating around to build a light rail from Waukesha to downtown, projected to go right down the middle of I94, which would have alleviated the brutal rush-hour traffic that exists daily on that stretch. Of course this got squelched by politicians, just as the current ideas have, and we’re worse off for it. But not Minneapolis.
The Hiawatha line in Minneapolis, a 12-mile route linking downtown, MSP International Airport and Mall of America, averaged over 30,000 rides a day and hit 10 million total rides last year alone. 10 million! I don’t know if you’ve ever driven from downtown Minneapolis to the airport, but like I-94 it usually was a pretty tough trip. In fact I found a survey that said nearly half of all train riders would have driven by themselves to the airport or downtown had light rail not been available. Now I know Minneapolis is much larger than Milwaukee, but this is a clear illustration that a light rail system is a good idea that will pay off.
Why am I such a fan of trains? Glad you asked. According to the American Public Transportation Association:
-Train travel is safer. More than 80 times safer than travel by auto, in fact.
-Train travel can reduce our energy dependence. If just one in 10 more Americans used public transportation daily, US reliance on foreign oil would decrease 40 percent.
-We’d feel better and be healthier. Studies show that people who take the train regularly tend to be healthier than people who don’t because of the exercise they get boarding the train and getting to the station and the office and the fact that they are relaxed en route.
-We’d save money. Families that use public transportation would cut their household expenses by over $6,000 annually.
-It is far better for the environment. Train systems are the most efficient form of transportation, emitting less carbon and using less fuel per passenger than any other form of transportation by far, especially cars.
-High-speed trains also reinvigorate manufacturing and put people back to work (see Minneapolis). It would seem that a recent promise of increased jobs in Wisconsin might benefit from this.
The government wanted to give us money, twice, to either enhance or build our train system. Yet we got neither one. Why? Politics. And that, my friends, is absurd. I get that an infrastructure is necessary for train travel and that is expensive to build and maintain. But the data shows that would pay for itself, as we’ve demonstrated here, in many ways.
I think back to my childhood and my Lionel trains, remembering the hours and hours of enjoyment they gave me, and how trains still simply make things better. We need them in Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to Madison, from Waukesha to downtown, from downtown to the airport, from downtown to Kenosha.
Who will raise the banner? Who will carry the flag?